Go or no? Chebeague considers secession

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

To secede or not to secede is the talk at Doughty's Island Market on Chebeague Island, as islanders debate whether they should sever their 184-year-old ties with the town of Cumberland.

But while proprietor Ed Doughty said most of the talk leans in favor of secession, many islanders have not yet made up their minds.

"Most people seem to be . . . interested in learning more about it," Doughty said.

Islanders say they are considering secession to ensure the survival of their way of life, including the preservation of their tiny island school.

This week they followed months of discussion with action: They began to circulate a petition asking Cumberland to hold a public hearing regarding secession. The petition also proposes that nine other small islands, including Hope, Little Chebeague and Stave islands, join Chebeague in leaving Cumberland.

Circulating such a petition is the first step in the multi-step process for the secession of a territory from a municipality as outlined by state law. The final decision on secession would be made by the Legislature.

The petition was made available for signatures on Sunday at a meeting on the island called by the Chebeague Island Community Association. However, the association's president, Herb Maine, said there is no rush to get it signed because the association is still discussing the issue and planning its next steps.

"We don't have any hard core drive going on," Maine said.

Maine said Tuesday that he was unsure how many people had signed the petition. He said about 120 people attended the meeting, but only about 60 were registered voters on the island. Chebeague has about 330 registered voters and a majority must sign the petition to force a public hearing.

While most island secession movements are revolts against high taxes, that is not the case with Chebeague, said Maine. He said a budget provided to islanders at Sunday's meeting assumed that the tax rate would remain the same if the island and town separated.

"This is not about money or taxes at all," Maine said. "It's about the character of the community."

Chebeaguers began talking secession the spring, when the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district proposed sending the island's children to mainland schools beginning in the fourth grade instead of the sixth grade, as happens now.

Islanders saw the move as a first step toward closing the school, triggering the demise of Chebeague as a year-round community. Although about 1,700 people visit the island each year, it has only about 350 year-round residents.

In the face of islanders' protests, the board of directors of School Administrative District 51 dropped the plan.

While the Chebeague Island Community Association formed as a result of the school controversy, Maine said that issue no longer drives the group.

Instead, he said, islanders are simply questioning whether the needs of the island and the town and school district have become too divergent for them to remain together.

It's not entirely clear whether seceding from Cumberland would also sever Chebeague's ties to SAD 51. James Rier, director of finance for the Maine Department of Education, said be believes that "by seceding from Cumberland, they're not part of the SAD anymore."

If enough Chebeaguers sign the petition for the public hearing, then the islanders would vote in an advisory referendum. If a majority supports secession, the Cumberland Town Council would then vote on the issue. If the council supported secession, the matter would go the Legislature for approval.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at: